As a way to make a living, writing pretty much sucks, as most writers not named James Patterson or Malcolm Gladwell can tell you. So I was intrigued to run across this review of a slender essay by the Canadian author Stephen Marche, On Writing and Failure: Or, On the Peculiar Perseverance Required to Endure the Life of a Writer.
Summarizing the book’s argument, reviewer Neal Pollack quotes Marche as alluding to “a long line of writers who died considering themselves failures, including Jane Austen, Herman Melville, John Keats, Ovid, and George Orwell.”
Which brought me up short, since, whatever you may think about Ovid, Keats, and the rest of the boys, I’m not aware of any evidence that Jane Austen died considering herself a failure. Indeed, if anything, her career was on an upswing in the years before her untimely passing: She had signed on with John Murray, the most prestigious publisher of her day; her work had been favorably reviewed by Sir Walter Scott; the Prince Regent had declared himself a fan.
No doubt she would have preferred to sell more copies--wouldn't we all--but unless Cassandra burned the evidence, Austen’s letters don’t suggest that she felt discouraged, wondered if it had all been worthwhile, or saw herself as coming up short against yardsticks of success. Indeed, on her deathbed, she wrote a poem containing the line, "But behold me immortal!" which may or may not have been a manifesto of self-confidence.
So I turned to Marche’s book, to find out how he defends this claim about Austen. What did I find?
First of all, a beautifully written, funny, and piercing meditation on, well, writing and failure. And, especially, on the many aspects, beyond the financial, that failure can take: “A hundred million dollars is worth having, to be sure,” he writes, “but it doesn’t protect you from the sense that you’ve been misunderstood, that the world doesn’t recognize who you are. It doesn’t.”
Also, I found two mentions of Austen:
--“No whining. Jane Austen never lived to see her name on any of her books. They were ‘By A Lady.’ Every Jane Austen novel, with the exception of Pride and Prejudice, had to be published on commission, with the expenses of publication paid for by the author, the publisher taking a fee for services.” --“If you want to write well, the overwhelming majority of the time you will be doing so for its own sake, with a vague, not particularly sensible hope that it will somehow resonate . . . . That’s how Jane Austen lived . . . . Why would it be any different for you?”
A couple of the details are a tad misleading—Austen could have put her name on her books but chose not to, and she could have sold her copyrights to Murray but thought she could make more money by going the commission route. But Marche’s basic point is sound: Writing is chancy, conventional success is elusive, and even the greatest writers--including Austen, who spent much of her life writing with little expectation that she'd be published--frequently garner few material rewards.
You will have noted, however, that nowhere does he say that Austen died considering herself a failure--just that she died lacking some of the conventional markers of success. Pollack, it seems, misunderstood Marche’s point—and, just incidentally, misspelled his name, too. Which seems appropriate, somehow.